Friday, December 03, 2004

Cynical about the dictionaries

When we look up cínico in the Spanish<>English dictionary: Espasa gives the meaning as "cynical" (adjective) and "cynic" (noun). Quite obvious. I can look up "cynical" and "cynic" in the English-to-Spanish dictionary and find the same thing; cínico(a). Same in the Oxford. Hmm, the Gran Larousse gives two meanings for cínico; (1) "cynical/cynic" and (2)"hardfaced, shameless or brazen," illustrated by "¡Qué cínico!" = "What a nerve!"

Good for the Gran Larousse! Of my Spanish-English dictionaries, this is the one that tends most to fall into the trap of an overfondness for cognates but here's one they got right. For "cynical/cínico" is indeed a false, or at least unreliable friend, in spite of what the majority of Spanish-English dictionaries say. I was first alerted to this by a note in Jack Child's book Introduction to Spanish Translation.

The meanings in the two languages admit only a small overlap. The RAE gives these meanings for cínico (as an adjective):

1. adj. Que muestra cinismo (desvergüenza). [showing "cynicism" (shamelessness)].
2. adj. Impúdico [immodest, shameless; lewd], procaz [impudent, indecent; obscene].
3. adj. Se dice de cierta escuela que nació de la división de los discípulos de Sócrates, y de la cual fue fundador Antístenes, y Diógenes su más señalado representante. [Said of a certain school which arose from a division of Socrates' disciples, founded by Antisthenes. Its best-known member was Diogenes.]
4. adj. Perteneciente o relativo a esta escuela [Belonging to or relative to this school.].
5. adj. desus. desaseado [dirty, grubby, unkempt]

In English, the Merriam-Webster, for example, tells us that "cynical" means deeply distrustful; having a sneering disbelief in sincerity or integrity; contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives; having a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest.

In the Collins dictionary that used to be referenced at, three meanings were given for "cynical":

1 distrustful or contemptuous of virtue, esp. selflessness in others; believing the worst of others, esp. that all acts are selfish
2 sarcastic; mocking
3 showing contempt for accepted standards of behaviour, esp. of honesty or morality
example: the politician betrayed his promises in a cynical way

Here the third meaning does come close to the Spanish meaning.

Both the English and Spanish words are derived from the Latin "cynicus", which in turn comes from the Greek kynikos, "dog-like." From the Wikipedia entry:

The Cynics were a small but influential school of ancient philosophers. Their name is thought to be derived either from the building in Athens called Cynosarges, the earliest home of the school, or from the Greek word for a dog (kuon), in contemptuous allusion to the uncouth and aggressive manners adopted by the members of the school. Whichever of these explanations is correct, it is noticeable that the Cynics agreed in taking a dog as their common badge or symbol, as early as the tombstone of Diogenes of Sinope. From a popular conception of the intellectual characteristics of the school comes the modern sense of "cynic," implying a sneering disposition to disbelieve in the goodness of human motives and a contemptuous feeling of superiority.

The The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition gives a somewhat different account of the path from the Greek Cynics to the modern meaning of the word.

The first use of the word recorded in English, in a work published from 1547 to 1564, is in the plural for members of this philosophical sect. In 1596 we find the first instance of "cynic" meaning “faultfinder,” a sense that was to develop into our modern sense. The meaning “faultfinder” came naturally from the behavior of countless Cynics who in their pursuit of virtue pointed out the flaws in others. Such faultfinding could lead quite naturally to the belief associated with cynics of today that selfishness determines human behavior.
In short, I don't find any evidence that anyone really knows how "cynic" and "cynical" came to take on a different meaning in English.

In Spanish, here, we find

La palabra "cínico" se origina en kunikos, que quiere decir "como un can", y se refiere a la desvergüenza en el comportamiento; al hacer las cosas a la vista de todos, como los perros.

[…means "like a dog", and refers to shameless behaviour; doing things in plain view, like dogs.]

Here author Gabriela Onetto mentions near the beginning of her essay the definitons given in #1, #2 and #5 of the RAE above ("sinvergüenza, procaz, descarado, impúdico, desfachatado, fresco, insolente, desaliñado, despreciativo, caradura, satírico, imprudente, sucio), yet near the end, she states "Hoy, llamamos cínicos a aquellos que desconfían de la naturaleza humana y sus motivos, a los misántropos, a los idealistas decepcionados." [Today we call those who distrust human nature and its motives, misanthropes and disappointed idealists "cynics".] which fits the English definition, not the Spanish, yet I haven't found this meaning in any Spanish dictionary.

Finally, in quotes and sayings using "cynical" translated from English to Spanish, which meaning should be understood? Oscar Wilde said "What is a cynic? A person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." (Qué es un cínico? Una persona que conoce el precio de todo y el valor de nada.) do "cynic" and "cínico" mean someone who believes the worst of humankind or someone who flaunts his faults without shame?

This joke apparently originated in English because it certainly uses the English meaning, and doesn't make much sense with the usual Spanish meaning:
CÍNICO: Ser miserable cuya defectuosa vista le hace ver las cosas como son y no como deberían ser. [A cynic: An unfortunate being whose imperfect vision causes him to see things as they are and not as they should be.]